How to talk to kids about TX school shooting — NJ expert explains
A quote from a 1999 interview with the late Fred Rogers, echoing a theme he periodically revisited on his iconic children's television show, continues to resonate across America in times of tragedy: "Always look for the helpers."
In the wake of events like Tuesday's mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, in which 19 students and two teachers were killed, New Jersey children may look for parents, guardians, caregivers, or teachers to help them process any resulting trauma.
But the weight of this can be stressful for adults, according to Stephanie Marcello, Rutgers University Behavioral Health Care chief psychologist, as they may be navigating new territory in discussions with the kids in their lives.
It's important for adult authority figures to take care of themselves, particularly by not consuming too much media with regard to a catastrophe, but Marcello said displaying openness and trust with children is crucial, even if a child's reaction to an isolated event will diminish over time.
"Knowing that they can come to us, and they can come to you and they can ask you any questions, and encouraging them to do that rather than trying to seek information from their friends at school, is really important," Marcello said.
And Marcello added that the questions kids might ask don't always have to have answers.
"It's OK to tell them, 'I'm not really sure about that,'" she said. "'Why would someone do this?' — to say, 'We don't really know why somebody would do this,' that we're not sure."
Children's reactions manifest in all types of ways and vary by age, Marcello said. In younger children, there might be headaches, stomach aches, nightmares, sensitivity to loud or sudden noises, or a general anxiety that something bad might happen to a family member.
A parent could also notice a change in a child's attention span, ability to concentrate, or interest in activities. Marcello said ultimately, parents want to create a safe space for their children to feel comfortable to talk to them and other trusted adults.
As children age into their teen years, she said, they may be interested in discussing the political causes and implications of a traumatic event. Parents can handle this delicately if they so choose.
"You can even talk with your kids about sometimes when we have different opinions, there are strains in relationships with families, and support that we aren't always going to all agree and sometimes that does cause a little bit of conflict," Marcello said.
When talking specifically about a school shooter, Marcello said adults should make clear that most people do not act in this fashion, and that thoughts of revenge, while sometimes unavoidable, should not be acted upon.
Rather, she suggested pivoting the conversation to one of safety: what is being done to promote it in the community, and how that community works together to comfort each other.
She added that the same advice against media and social media oversaturation applies just as much to children as to adults.
If a child has concerns about going back to school, Marcello said it would be beneficial for them to identify a trusted adult within the school building whom they can go to whenever they need reassurance.
Otherwise, she said, adults should prioritize keeping kids' routines consistent, and let them know there is no right or wrong way to get their feelings out in the open.
"Really, no judgment for whatever's happening with you, even if you don't understand it," Marcello said. "And we may not always understand why we're feeling certain things, and that's completely normal."